The British Way of asking for trouble

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHATEVER the British Way is, William Hague mentioned it 19 times in his closing conference speech. It is a reliable rule of thumb that the less clear the meaning of a soundbite, the more frequently a politician will use it in the hope that repetition will make the word flesh.

Thus Tony Blair returns insistently to his Third Way, an infinitely elastic notion which will be swept aside by the far starker choices about to be imposed on his government by an economic downturn. It will have produced nothing worse on the way beyond a few more think-tank pamphlets than strictly necessary. The British Way, on the other hand, is a siren phrase and one which Mr Hague will come to regret. It plucks the heart-strings of the embittered, confused Conservative Party in all the wrong places. It will be seen to legitimise the small-minded chauvinism which is in danger of setting British Conservatism adrift from the political mainstream. Its strategic usefulness is doubtful, its policy implications confused, its potential to arouse ugliness and conflict considerable.

The very harping on Britishness is a sign of insecurity. Here is a party, anxious to demonstrate how up to date it is by plonking its former leaders on chairs made by a Swedish firm whose current advertising campaign is based on the assumption that to be British is to be stuffy, snobbish, outdated and to have a lousy sex life. Step forward, Sir Edward Heath.

Then along came William, defining his way at first with Blairite blandness as "doing what has to be done", only to build to a crescendo in which being British became a cipher for feeling murderously resentful towards just about everyone and everything and being prepared to take a 12-bore shotgun to any hapless figure who just might have designs on your property. That might well be the Britishness of the less enlightened golf clubs. But it is deeply unappealing to the vast majority of people, who instinctively distrust politicians defining national identity to suit themselves.

Not content with inheriting one great Europe-shaped wound in the party, the Conservative leader now risks another round of blood-letting by raising the possibility of an English parliament. Steadily, this idea has been creeping up on him. It is the latest fad of the Tory right, bored of the perma-battle over Europe and anxious to open up a different front at home.

So the Battle for Britishness has begun and the rest of us will be the poor bloody infantry, our every enthusiasm, prejudice and gesture interpreted to suit the whim of the latter-day St Georges. Mr Hague, having said that he would never allow the Conservatives to become the party of English nationalism, promptly raised the prospect of a national parliament which would be the focus of precisely that emotion. Who does he think would rush to the selection meetings if not the faintly deranged types standing outside the conference hall in Bournemouth mutinously wielding their red and white flags and demanding "their" money back from the ungrateful Scots?

New Labour, meanwhile, will play up the contrast by emphasising its cosmopolitanism in order to divert attention from the growing unease about the stability of EMU and its suitability for the United Kingdom. The real debate about how our economic and strategic interests are best served will be drowned out by the foolish babble of little Englanders on one side and little Europeans on the other. We will have two false antitheses, eyeball to eyeball at the heart of British politics.

The psychological as well as the practical consequences of devolution have been understated. "England," the Royal Commission on the Constitution declared in 1973, "is a state of mind, not a consciously organised political institution." This was a welcome state of affairs which has allowed its citizens to be as English as they want to be without forcing the point or drawing conclusions in their name.

The loosening of bonds within the UK makes that more difficult to uphold. Devolution means an altered state for all of us. It changes the UK's centre of gravity. As a result, there will have to be a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster and a reassessment of their role in legislation that will only apply in England.

But it is madness for a party committed to preserving the Union, and whose leader has just pledged to provide "smaller government and bigger citizens", to consider adding another assembly over the heads of its citizens - be they, as Oscar Wilde said of aunts, large or small ones. In the bars and fringe events of Bournemouth, I kept hearing the phrase "English daze" which seemed a fitting description of this depressing drift. Fortunately, it turned out to mean something less scary - the proposal that, after a Scottish parliament begins work, Westminster should devote "English days" to discussion of legislation affecting England only and with only English MPs in session.

It is to such practicalities, rather than dreams of vengeance and eternal majorities in a fractious national assembly, that the Tories must turn their minds. A Balkanisation of the United Kingdom would play into the hands of European federalists by weakening the UK within the European Union. Given that many Tory supporters of an English parliament are Eurosceptics, it is odd they are not more worried about this consequence.

An English national assembly would also impede true decentralisation - the revival of accountable local government through elected mayors and a system of primaries to reduce the control of party machines over the outcome. If Conservatives really want to fight the dominance of the centralised state this is the obvious place to start.

The argument about the best way to balance the UK after devolution is just beginning. We will learn as we go along. But now is the time to set down the rules of engagement and the most important should be to avoid actions or rhetoric likely to exacerbate resentments. Part of being British is the acceptance of gracious muddle. It is about living comfortably with a range of overlapping identities and having the good sense to accept that none of them is absolute or immutable. We are a mongrel nation which hesitates to assign precise descriptions to ourselves: "I'm British, well, English really, except by grandmother was Welsh and I've got a bit of Scottish blood somewhere..."

More than anything else, we fear the false certainties of separation and the deepening of what divides rather than unites us. Implicitly accusing an elected government of being at odds with Britishness is not the language of civil society, but the war cry of the rabble-rouser. Mr Hague should consider more carefully where his British Way might lead us. He has sent out a message which will be heeded by the wrong people, for the wrong reasons.

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